Background: The history of “Free-form” FM Radio in L.A.

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First, some background for my friends who don’t know the history of “Free-form” FM Radio in Los Angeles –

In the mid 1960s, the FCC ruled that AM/FM stations could no longer simulcast their AM programming on their FM counterparts. Station owners fought a losing battle to stop this ruling, and because of this new restriction, were forced to find alternative programming options. Some subscribed to pre-taped music formats – where the entire day of programming was prepackaged and broadcast unaltered – perhaps with a live D.J. providing some live element. Others used their FM station for foreign language programs. For the most part, programming on the FM dial was an afterthought.

Programming pioneers like Tom Donahue, a popular “Top 40” D.J., concert promoter and small record label owner, saw new opportunities in the FM space. Donahue wrote what has been called the “seminal free-form FM manifesto” in a 1967 Rolling Stone article titled “AM Radio Is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up the Airwaves.”

Tom Wrote:

“The disc jockeys have become robots…performing their inanities at the direction of programmers who have succeeded in totally squeezing the human element out of their sound…They have succeeded in making everyone on the station staff sound the same – asinine. This is the much coveted ‘station sound.’”

He and his future wife, Raechel, approached Leon Crosby, the owner of San Francisco’s KMPX, with a proposal to take over the station’s programming with “no jingles, no talkovers, no time and temp, no pop singles.” In April 1967, Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue was on KMPX for the first time. Over the following weeks, Tom and Raechel hired on-air talent including Dusty Street and future actor Howard Hessman (who played Dr. Johnny Fever on “WKRP in Cincinnati”). By August, the new “Free-form” format was playing 7 days a week, around the clock. In November of the same year, Crosby offered the Donahues the opportunity to split their time and program a newly purchased station in Pasadena, California called KPPC (106.7).

For the next few months, Tom and Raechel traveled between Pasadena and San Francisco, programming and operating both stations. With the bosses in neither location full time, Crosby attempted to institute new rules (including a dress code) which became very unpopular with the staff. These new restrictions upset the Donahues so much that they resigned. Loyal air staff at KMPX staged what was called “The Great Hippie Strike” – walking off the air and out of the building. KPPC staff followed the next day.

Over the next couple of months with subs filling in, former staffers and Crosby attempted to resolve their issues, but to no avail. Popular bands refused to let their music be aired, and listeners abandoned the stations. In May of 1968, Metromedia switched the formats of their local stations – KSAN in San Francisco and KMET in Los Angeles – and much of the staff (the Donahues included) moved to the new stations. “Big Daddy” continued with KMET and KSAN until his death in 1975, and Raechel stayed at KMET until 1976.

In Late 1971, ABC-owned KLOS launched the first “Album-Rock Format” in the United States, playing songs from top selling contemporary rock albums, and following tighter programming rules and a “rotation” system (fixed number of times that a song was played in a week). KLOS’s slogan was “Rock ‘N Stereo.” The disc jockey line up included Jeff Gonzer, J.J. Jackson (one of MTV’s original “Fab Five”), Jim Ladd, and Damion. By 1972, KLOS was the top rated FM station in LA.

Throughout the 70s and early 80s, the ratings horse race was primarily between KMET and KLOS. KMET, holding to the “Free-form” format, was considered the “cooler” and more eclectic underground station, and KLOS the more mainstream commercial heavy-hitter. The friction between the two stations helped highlight the differences between the formats, particularly when Jim Ladd switched from KLOS to KMET in 1974.

Countering their rivals with legendary stories of sex, drugs and rock and roll -detailed in Jim Ladd’s semi-autobiographical book, “Radio Waves: Live and Revolution on the FM Dial” – KMET’s gonzo reputation carried on into the 1980s. The 1978 movie FM is said to have been loosely based on events at KMET. The “Mighty Met” hosted legendary live “remotes” from venues like the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and the Roxy, featuring popular artists such as Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top and Bob Seeger. The Dr. Demento show, which moved to KMET from KPPC in 1972, and had become the most listened-to Sunday evening program in Los Angeles, continued to grow its syndication reach, bringing the KMET name to listeners nationwide.

Ladd and KMET’s other on-air talent weren’t afraid to express their social and political opinons, no matter how controversial they were at the time. KMET was known to blend counterculture comedy with social commentary with rarely-played “deep tracks” from various recording artists. KLOS, on the other hand, had a much broader appeal than KMET. It enjoyed higher ratings and more revenue. Financial pressures forced KMET to experiment with format changes, staff changes, tighter programming control and more play for “mainstream” music. By the time KMET finally abandoned its format in 1987 and became KTWV “The Wave,” KLOS was the undisputed rock music king of Los Angeles, with long-running staples like “The Seventh Day” (with “Uncle Joe” Benson) and “Rockline” (with Bob Coburn).

While KLOS continued to focus on modern rock, a new rival appeared – KLSX (97.1). One of the first “Classic Rock format” FM stations, KLSX hired well-known personalities including Damion, Billy Juggs, Frazer Smith, Dr. Demento and later, Dusty Street and Jim Ladd. With the exception of Dr. Demento’s Sunday night show, the “Classic Rock” programming format for KLSX was geared mainly to adult listeners, and relied on a narrower playlist of music from the 60s and early 70s. KLSX’s “Classic Rock” format lasted until 1995, when KLSX changed its moniker to “Real Radio 97.1” and adopted an “All Talk” format.

Flashing back, and moving to the other end of the dial, long abandoned KPCC (106.7) became KROQ in 1973. In 1979, with a D.J. lineup that included Rodney Bingenheimer and Jed the Fish, KROQ rose from near-death to great heights by adopting the alternative and new wave “Roq of the 80s” format. By 1982, under the guidance of program director Rick Carroll and a team of amazing talent, KROQ become, literally, the “World Famous KROQ”.

It’s nearly impossible to fully document the extensive influence that KROQ had on the music business in the 1980s.

“’Tell me about KROQ?’ That’s like saying, ‘Tell me about Vietnam’ or ‘Tell me about the French Revolution,’ No one will ever know all of it.”

--KROQ’s Jed the Fish, Los Angeles Magazine November 2001

KROQ allowed the D.J.s freedom that had been taken away from the more established KMET and KLOS. This new “Free-form” resurgence helped KROQ to break bands such as Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, B-52s, Missing Persons, Go-Gos, U2, INXS, The Cure, The Smiths, Devo, Oingo Boingo, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tears for Fears, Thomas Dolby, Billy Idol, Adam Ant, The Clash, Culture Club, Wham! and countless more.

While KMET, KLOS and other LA stations were competing over rock and Top-40 music, KROQ was the only station in Los Angeles playing this “New Wave” of music. By 1982, when “New Wave” was embraced by the mainstream, KROQ was firmly established as the original home of the “Roq of the 80s.”

Record labels told artists, “You’ll know you’ve made it when you get played on KROQ.”

Famous KROQ D.J. alumni include Adam Carolla, Carson Daly, Kennedy, Lewis Largent and Jimmy Kimmel. The KROQ syndicated show “Loveline” (originally developed in 1983 by D.J.s Poorman and Swedish Egil) can still be heard globally five nights a week.

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